Medical insurance providers in the UK are racing to come up with solutions and remedies for customers who are unable to access private hospital services during the current coronavirus crisis.
The pandemic emergency has seen almost all of Britain’s independent and private sector hospital capacity given over to dealing with a continuing flood of patients requiring inpatient – often in intensive care units – treatment as a result of the disease.
A landmark deal struck last month has seen Britain’s independent and private sector hospitals pledge to provide staff and facilities – at cost – to help the NHS to deal with the huge numbers of patients requiring care.
But questions remain about how hospitals and insurers should deal with indviduals and employers who have paid significant volumes for private medical insurance to give them non-COVID-19-related access to hospitals that are now unable to treat them.
While the majority of PMI customers have expressed their understanding about the unprecedented and unusual times facing the country, the question remains of what insurers in particular should do in terms of collecting premiums from existing members or from taking on new customers.
The Association of Medical Insurers & Intermediaries (AMII), a trade body representing the industry, has said that PMI often provides much more than “just” access to private hospital treatment.
Digital GP services, mental health suport and employee assistance programmes are commonly offered as part of a PMI package.
AMII chairman Stuart Scullion has said that members are also in discussion about some potential solutions, including rebates and refunds, although payment holidays or enhanced NHS cash benefits are thought to be more attractive ways forward for the sector as a whole.
But as insurers race to work out how best to limit their exposure while also delivering value to their customers, time is running out if the industry is to demonstrate that it has its customers best interests at heart.
The health insurance industry will have to bear in mind the potential reputational risk that could prove damaging long after the current coronavirus crisis comes to an end.
It is unlikely that individuals and employers – already wincing at the cost of private healthcare and medical insurance – will remain patient for too much longer if insurers are unable to come up with some interim solution or solutions while private hospitals help to deal with the coronavirus crisis.
At present, public sentiment is such that there is some understanding and acceptance that elective care at private hospitals should focused on dealing with coronavirus in the short-term.
But premium fatigue is likely to set in – and insurers need to think cleverly and quickly if they are to stop a potentially irreversible rot in consumer confidence.
HAVE YOU HEARD THE ONE ABOUT THE AUSTRALIAN, THE ENGLISHMAN AND IRISHMAN? IT’S NO JOKE AS HOSPITALS AND INSURERS ACROSS THE WORLD PUT NORMAL ACTIVITY ON INDEFINITE HOLD
The UK isn’t the only country where health insurers are grappling with the almost impossible scenario of trying to sell or justify a product that is, effectively, of little or no use in the current climate.
Strategists at providers in Australia and Ireland have been racking their brains to try to come up with a solution that can prove workable and sustainable for them, their members and hospital operators while the coronavirus crisis plays out.
IN IRELAND – where an estimated 2.2 million people are covered by health insurance plans – the acting chief executive of one of the major players there has written to customers pledging some kind of compensation.
In a letter to customers, Vhi’s Declan Moran said that in previous years when the provider had a reduction in claims, it returned that money to customers.
He wrote: “We now give you a commitment that we will do that again.”
He made the pledge as the Government in Dublin reached an agreement with private hospitals across Ireland for the temporary use of their premises during the crisis.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar stressed the move did not represent the nationalisation of private hospitals, but rather a partnership between public and private hospitals.
The move would free up 2,000 beds across 19 hospitals throughout Ireland, including nine labs, 47 ICU beds and 194 ventilators.
Under the agreement, Ireland’s Health Service Executive has secured 100% of the capacity in the country’s private hospitals. Like In England, all patients will be treated as public patients and the hospitals will be reimbursed for their operating costs.
Varadkar said it was not possible at this time to indicate an exact cost for the move, but said independent accountants would examine the issue.
The agreement is in place for three months, with an option to extend that afterwards.
IN AUSTRALIA, meanwhile, the federal government there has said it will shoulder half of the cost of integrating the private hospital system with the public one to deal with coronavirus.
Australia’s four largest health insurers have all put plans to increase premiums – plans that were due to kick in this month – on ice, in recognition of the financial hardship facing many members as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Like the UK and Ireland, private hospitals down under are cancelling or postponing non-urgent elective procedures to free up capacity for COVID-19 patients.
Bupa, HCF, Me and and nib have scrapped their anticipated premium hikes, after West Australian not-for-profit fund HBF said it would freeze its planned premium increases
It is thought that political campaigners looking to reform healthcare provision in Australia and Ireland – and indeed the UK – are hoping that the temporary takeover of private hospitals to deal with COVID-19 will become permanent.
They would like to see an end to all forms of private provision of healthcare, with some calling for a complete takeover of health funding and provision by the state to become permanent and the health insurance industries in their respective countries to be closed down for good.